Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A song, a dance, a polemic about corruption in the Niger delta

There are many people whose lives do not make an ideal subject for a musical. Archbishop McQuaid, Baruch Spinoza, Steve Biko, Jean-Paul Satre, Norman Lamont or Geoffrey Boycott, would not be transformed into colourful and entertaining figures simply by adding an exclamation mark to their name. After all, one of the central jokes in the Producers was the sheer preposterousness of making a musical about Hitler.

Even allowing for the modern trend of making musicals about popular music (presumably to save the hassle of actually writing new songs) I would have put Fela Kuti in that list.

It seems I would have been wrong.

Since this is the internet, I don't think we need let the fact that I haven't seen Fela! (I'm afraid that is the name) stop me from commenting. I would not have thought that 20-minute songs that fuse jazz, funk and traditional African music with scathing political and religious commentaries would be the ideal format for an all-singing, all dancing extravaganza.

But really the concept is so ludicrous that it is impossible not to warm to it. (After all, opera doesn't have any problems with utterly ridiculous plotlines or subjects - Nixon in China? Why that's just the thing to write songs about). One also loves the attempt to sanitise some of his less, shall we say, progressive views.

His wives, or "queens", as he refers to them, are depicted as regal, dignified companions. Others, however, have criticised the play for this. Fela, in fact, married 27 women in 1978 before he adopted a rotating system of 12 wives. In the play, he is able to explain his life choices, but the women are silent.

Aye, good luck with that. One of Fela's finest songs, let us not forget, was Lady; a lengthy plea to women to learn their place and do whatever men tell them. It's not necessarily a view I'd endorse (though the sound of Harriet Harman's voice inevitably prompts me to put it on); but I don't think it matters. The musical merits are, I'd say, pretty indisputable; and it really doesn't need repackaging for a Broadway audience to demonstrate that.

However, there is an even more unlikely subject for a musical. Proving that life once again mirrors Father Ted (with a nod to I, Keano), Italian audiences have been treated to a musical based on the life of the late pope John Paul II.

Non Abbiate Paura, or Don't Be Scared, this show, like the others, is bustling with show-stopping songs, dance routines and drama. It is an attempt to cram the 84 years of his life into two hours. The musical was written by two priests, one who wrote the script, the other who crafted the songs.

Unfortunately, the best song ever written about Catholicism is not, so far as I can tell, part of the show. So here it is.

First you get down on your knees, and fiddle with your rosaries...

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